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Cartagena: A Gem of a Colonial City

My Panama Canal cruise is winding down when Volendam docks at one of our last ports: Cartagena, Colombia. I’m with my unflappable photographer, Joe Schmelzer, because we’re covering the cruise for Mariner magazine. We’ve both heard about the colonial city of Cartagena for years, and are jumping out of our skin to compare the praise lavished on it with the reality we’ll soon experience.

My friend Juan Carlos Arcila Duque, an interior designer and art dealer, grew up in Barranquilla, about an hour away from Cartagena, and he sets the bar high: “The magic of Cartagena will seduce you in minutes,” he texts me as Joe and I disembark. “It happened to me,” he continues. “I can’t get enough of it.” He overhauled an old building in town and transformed it into an inn, and he tells me to notice every façade, and to appreciate that each house has a story.

To get the lay of the land we jump on the Cartagena Sightseeing excursion. First, we stop at the scenic 16th-century Fort of San Felipe de Barajas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. Its triangular shape commands a hilltop. We mill about among the palm trees at the base of the fortress, taking photos with women in colorful native dress and baskets of fruit on their heads — pineapples, mango, bananas. One local woman, standing beside a massive pile of wide-brimmed straw hats for sale, covers her face with her scarlet shawl, wanting a few pesos in exchange for her image. We oblige.

CARTAGENA DE INDIAS, COLOMBIA - AUGUST, 2018: Traditional fruits street vendor in Cartagena de Indias called Palenquera

We hop back on the motor coach, and through the windows I see adorable uniformed kids hanging out in front of their school, waiting for class to begin. A few blocks later we get off to admire the textiles, paintings and handicrafts at Las Bovedas, an arcade of boutiques. I’m taken by the brilliantly hued paintings of doorways and street scenes depicted on repurposed wood planks, arrayed around actual dark rose-covered doorways.

A few minutes later, we take our seats in the Navy Museum to watch a folkloric dance troupe. I’m expecting corny and cute but the vibrant performance actually turns out to be earthy, athletic and raw. It reminds me of the fast and sensual dances I’ve seen in French Polynesia. We meet the dancers afterwards — the women with their gorgeous smiles and off-the-shoulder dresses; the wiry, shirtless men adorned with lime-green bandanas around their heads.

Colombian dancers

The tour ends at the walled city. I am a lover of Spanish colonial towns, yet nothing prepares me for the charm of this 16th-century Colombian attraction. I am enchanted by the brilliant architecture: the peach, rich red and festive yellow of the domed Cathedral of Cartagena. Along the street, the entrances are works of art. A pair of enormous, iron-studded wooden doors announce a street-side mansion. There are cafes, yogurt shops, natural juice joints and bakeries like Prispri, where people sit a wooden communal tables. Joe and I sample sweet and savory empanadas.

By this time Joe is craving Colombian coffee, and I spot the purple façade of the Caffe San Alberto, where we’re served by a charming young man by the lyrical name of Sebastián Porto Hernández. Sebastián says that to be a first-time visitor is to be overwhelmed by “the city’s lights and colors and the sensations that overflow within yourself as you walk down every street.”

The graduate in engineering not only speaks flawless English, but actually enunciates with an American (vaguely Midwestern) accent. “I am good at mimicking accents,” he tells me with a smile. I ask him what his dream is. The answer is immediate. “To travel! Let me know if you want anyone to come with you and carry your bags!”

Colombian coffee barista

When I ask him to define the people of Cartagena, his answer is swift: “We tend to be extremely open without having any prejudices towards those we don’t know — as if we knew each other since forever!” I smile and tell him he’s already proven that.

THAT MOMENT IN CARTAGENA WHEN…
… I’m serenaded on the street.

I leave it to Joe to shoot Sebastián and the local coffee, telling him I’m just going to walk down the street to soak in some local color. So I head out on Calle de Los Santos de Piedra. A block away I decide to take a selfie against a sun-splashed orange wall, but the ladies in their traditional garb, stationed across the street, want me to take my photo with them. I look back down at my iPhone, and I hear music before I even see it. When I glance up, I realize I’m being serenaded by a group of boy rappers, with a boom box keeping the beat. From their gestures and what little Spanish I know, I get that they’re tailoring their lyrics toward me. Only minutes passed since I left Joe at the coffee shop, and suddenly I’m immersed in Cartagena culture. The freestyle rap goes on — animated hand movements; for one verse, one boy is the leader, then another boy is. I’m snapping photos the whole time (I can’t believe I didn’t video them, but clips are available on YouTube; just search “rappers Cartagena”).

Colombian street rappers

The song ends with a spirited, “Welcome to Colombia!” in English, and I put a few bucks in one of the boys’ baseball caps. I rush back to the coffee shop and find Joe. “You’re not going to believe what happened to me,” I say, then I tell him about the rap group. “I can’t believe I walk away for 10 minutes, and this amazing thing happens.”

“Drew,” Joe says, “it wasn’t even 10 minutes — it was like, three. I think you found your story.”

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